Warning: The greatest American heroes, Batman and Superman, aren’t played by Americans!

August 26, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 26, 2013

Last week, I watched The Dark Knight for the first time. If you have any interest in superhero or action-adventure films but haven’t yet seen this feature, well, why not? What are you waiting for? Get on that right away!

I don’t particularly want to review the film, but I thought it was everything I’d ever been told it was. I enjoyed it much more than Batman Begins, which was written and directed by the same team responsible for 2008’s The Dark Knight and this year’s trilogy capper, The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, this movie is probably the best superhero flick I’ve ever seen — although I ought to admit that I have yet to watch either The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises.

What I do want to do is write about two different subjects that The Dark Knight brought to mind. One topic is somewhat serious; the other is rather frivolous.

This post will concern the frivolous. Namely: What’s the deal with British actors playing American characters? In fact, what’s the deal with people born in the British Commonwealth playing iconic American characters?

You know who I’m talking about — or if not, you should. Henry Cavill, who plays Superman in this year’s reboot of that film franchise, Man of Steel, is British. Christian Bale, who (I should note) seems to be done playing the Caped Crusader after the three most recent Batman movies, was born in Wales. Daniel Day-Lewis won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Actor for playing Abraham Lincoln, the American president. The Londoner is the only person to win the best actor Oscar three times; Day-Lewis’ 2007 award, for There Will Be Blood, was earned for portraying an American oilman. (His first best actor prize for was playing real-life Irishman Christy Brown in My Left Foot in 1989.)

Of slightly less import, but still outrageous: Robert Pattinson, who plays American vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight films? He was born in London. Karl Urban from New Zealand plays Bones in the two latest Star Trek movies. That’s right: Dr. Leonard McCoy, physician from the future, the epitome of Southern chivalry of the 23rd century, is personified by a Kiwi!

Speaking of supporting players: Gary Oldman portrays upright Gotham City policeman Jim Gordon in the Batman Begins/Dark Knight/Dark Knight Rises trilogy. That’s the same Gary Oldman who was born in London. Fellow Londoner Idris Elba played Stringer Bell, a Baltimore native, in the TV series The Wire; he also had a supporting turn as an American starship captain in the movie Prometheus. (Elba’s ridiculously named character in Pacific Rim, Stacker Pentecost, was British, although his accent seemed to come and go.)

Oh, and speaking of Pacific Rim: Its male lead, Charlie Hunnam, who plays American gangster Jax Teller in the TV series Sons of Anarchy, is also British.

Television, it turns out, is replete with Commonwealth natives who sport American accents. There’s Hugh Laurie, the title character of HouseNashville features Brit Sam Palladio and Aussie Clare Bowen playing a Southern beau and belle. English actor Freddie Highmore plays a young Norman Bates in the Bates Motel TV series. Fellow English actor Hugh Dancy stars in another TV prequel: He plays American criminal profiler Will Graham in Hannibal, which is to SIlence of the Lambs as Bates Motel is to Psycho.

The Walking Dead is set in the post-zombie-apocalypse American South but has three actors who hail from Britain: Andrew Lincoln, David Morrissey and Lauren Cohan. Damian Lewis, who stars as an American war hero (or is he?) in Homeland, was also born across the pond. Australian Alex O’Loughlin stars as American cop Steve McGarrett in Hawaii Five-0

All of which begs the question: What gives? Why are so many Commonwealth natives playing Americans on the silver and small screens?

I have two potentially overlapping theories about this. They share a common theme, which is that American movies and television have become a victim of their own success.

Theory One: American TV and movies are distributed far and wide. That helps people from Britain and Australia and so forth gain familiarity with American accents, which makes it easy for them to learn American accents, which makes it easy for them to get gigs playing American characters.

Theory Two: There’s so much money in American TV and movies that overseas actors adopt American accents in order to boost their potential career earnings.

Other factors may come into play here, but I suspect these two explanations account for much of the phenomenon of Brits playing Americans.

For the time being, be aware that some of your favorite actors may come from overseas, even though their accents might appear to be home-grown. So if you hear a foreign accent on your DVD commentary, just try not to be too surprised.

You have been warned!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: